Conjuring Spellbinding Looks for Syfy’s “The Magicians”

DP Elie Smolkin and MTI Film Senior Colorist Steve Porter have forged a creative bond while finishing the second season of the hit fantasy series.

Post-production finishing for the second season of Syfy’s The Magicians was recently completed at MTI Film’s Hollywood facility. Senior Colorist Steve Porter worked with Director of Photography Elie Smolkin in crafting a series of arresting looks for the show, based on the best-selling novels by Lev Grossman about students at a mysterious school for “magical pedagogy.”

The Magicians has developed a large and devoted following, especially among teens and young adults, a success that Smolkin attributes to its superb creative team and an engaging story that defies easy categorization. “The show is a blend of genres,” he says. “It’s sci-fi, it’s drama, it’s horror, it’s fantasy and it’s comedy. The writers do an exceptionally good job in blending comedy with the show’s darker moments.”

The eerie and deserted Neitherlands   |   top Image - The medieval magical kingdom of fillory

The look of the show is also complex. The Magicians has four principal locations, the magic school known as Brakebills University, the medieval magical kingdom of Fillory, an eerie, deserted place called The Neitherlands and modern day New York City. Smolkin uses lighting, lenses, camera technique and color to give each location a distinct appearance.

“For New York, because it’s ‘real life,’ we use a hand-held camera style,” he explains. “We go for lenses that are on the wider side of the spectrum and a lot of vintage lenses to create a cold, muted and gritty look.

“Brakebills is just the opposite. It’s always magic hour there, a lot of golden shafts of light. It’s got a caramel feel and we use clean lenses to give it a glossy look. The Neitherlands is shot on a Dutch angle and is almost devoid of color. Not quite black & white, but more of a bleach by-pass look. Fillory has a medieval setting. There is no electricity, so the light comes from natural sources and fire. You flow through that world. There’s something in the way the sun catches our specialty lenses, a beautiful flare or a strange fall off.”

On set in Vancouver, Smolkin works with a DIT who applies base LUTs to camera media. Dailies are processed locally by Finale Editworks and then delivered, via high speed internet, to MTI Film.

Porter performs a first color pass unattended. Smolkin takes part in refining sessions. While the show was still in production, Smolkin observed grading sessions remotely from Vancouver. For the last several episodes, he attended color sessions in person. “I like to let Steve come at it from his own perspective,” Smolkin notes. “I provide image references and talk to him about the vibe we’re going for, then I let him do his thing. He approaches it with fresh eyes and puts his own spin on it. Often, he finds something special.”

the magic school; Brakebills University

Over the course of the series, Smolkin and Porter have developed a strong rapport. “There are a lot of talented colorists, and Steve is certainly talented, but he also has good taste,” Smolkin says. “His taste and aesthetic choices are similar to mine.”

That kind of open collaboration prevails in all phases of the show’s production, Smolkin adds. “Our show runners, writers and producers trust the people working for them,” he says. “They let everyone do what they do all the way down the line. They allow us to take risks, go with our guts and do things differently. It pays off and makes for a great show.”